By Kevin B. Lee
Last weekend the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival opened with the domestic premiere of Egg and Stone, which won a Tiger Award for Best Feature Film at the Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year. The first feature directed by Huang Ji, the film is a loosely autobiographical account of a young girl’s traumatic experience of family sexual abuse in a rural village in Hunan province. The film was actually shot in Huang Ji’s home village.
Unfortunately, the screening of the film was interrupted by a power failure that shut down the venue, which occurred shortly after local officials requested the festival stop its activities, having not received official authorization to screen films. “I had prepared my heart for this possibility,” Huang Ji told me, “but I was still crushed when it happened.” The film was eventually screened in its entirety later that week at a private venue.
The following interview with Huang Ji took place at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January. Interview translated by Heran Hao.
DGF: Your story is very unique and original among contemporary Chinese films; I’ve never seen a Chinese film with sexual abuse in a family as the subject matter. How did you decide to make a story about this?
Huang Ji: It relates to my experience when I was young. At that time, I lived in a village. As in the story, my parents migrated elsewhere to work, and left me in the care of my uncle. In fact, I experienced the same thing in the film, where the uncle intends to sexually abuse the main character. But in my situation it was not the same uncle who I lived, but another â€šÃ„Ãºuncleâ€šÃ„Ã¹ I saw every day. I was around eight then; it’s so young that the shadow of it haunts me. Thus, as soon as I planned to make a feature-length film, this idea suddenly pops up onto my mind and I decide to write it and make it.
DGF: So it was filmed in the same town where you grew up and experienced this trauma. That creates a really fascinating and maybe a very difficult situation. Could you tell me about that experience?
Huang Ji: Yes, it’s hard. Every time I go back to this village, my hometown, I feel disgusted. I hate and dislike this village. The hardest thing for me is telling about the outrage I suffered to my husband, who is also my producer and my director of photography. We had been living together for around six years and developing a good relationship, but I never told him about what happened to me. It was so hard to tell him that the film had something to do with my experience. When I found my courage and talked with him, he sympathized with me and wanted to help film this story. To me, this meant the greatest difficulty had been solved.
The second issue was trying to talk to my uncle who played the sexual abuser.
DGF: They are not the same person?
Huang Ji: No, the uncle acts in this film is my uncle who I’m living with, not that one who abused me. Because I wanted him to be the bad uncle in my film, it’s so hard to persuade him to be the actor. In Chinese traditional conventions, it’s bad to expose these scandals in public. If I film this, then it’s like a shame to my hometown. When I talked with him, he learned why I took efforts to make this film. Then he decided to help me, even though he’s busy with his work as a doctor. Then this set up a good beginning. Everything went well from there. The last real challenge before my filming was how to tell this story to my actress.
DGF: How did you find the girl who played the lead?
Huang Ji: I found her in the eighth grade of the same school that is in the film.
DGF: Is that also the school you used to study in?
Huang Ji: No, it is not, but I’ve known this school for a long time. In the freezing winter, I went to this school to find an actress. Her teacher asked her to see me. I used a tiny camera to shoot her. I looked at her through my viewer. When I asked her to face the playground with her face in profile, I felt her loneliness through her eyes. I didn’t even ask her to do anything specifically, I just decided that she would be the main character.
DGF: So how did you present this story to her?
Huang Ji: I told her that it’s an experience that I encountered when I was young. I told her how this experience traumatized me and changed my personality, and how I decided to film it. And then I asked her if she wanted to help me. She thought about it for two or three minutes, and just nodded.
DGF: Have you ever talked with her parents?
Huang Ji: I didn’t tell her parents about my experience, but I talked with her about what I was planning to film. Then her parents agreed that it was a good chance for their child for experience more and grow. Yet they gave the right of decision to the girl. We four, her parents, me and her, were sitting around the table and talking about this film. Her parents said that if she decided to join in, then she has to stick to the end. Then they made sure that their child wanted to live with us during the filming. She is a really quiet person. She nodded quietly for approval. She lived with us in this village after that and throughout our filming.
DGF: Is she just like the way as she behaves in the movie, so quiet?
Huang Ji: The way that the character behaves and expresses herself in the screenplay is quite fierce, extroverted and aggressive. But when we found the actress we realized that she was not like the person in the script. She even refused to act in one of the scenes. We didn’t know how to deal with it at that time, which led to a one-week postponement. We left for another place, and rewrote some parts of the script in a hotel. The updated script is based on our actress’ personality. There’s a big difference in the dialogues and plot. The original script contains a lot of details of my own teenage life. For example, the uncle helps the girl to wash her clothes. The actress disagreed with this plot.
Huang Ji: The uncle washes her clothes. He enters her room without knocking the door. He hands the washed clothes to her. The girl just didn’t know how to protect herself.
DGF: So he changes her clothes?
Huang Ji: Yes. It is based on my memory, when I was eight. But the girl in the movie is fourteen. Because the story is based on my personal experience, I didn’t consider the difference between myself in my memory and this older character. I didn’t realize the difference until the actress talked to me. The disagreement reflects her world, and it’s also her personality to keep a distance from others. So we talked a lot and she helped me to recreate the character. She was a collaborator.
DGF: Since she’s not a professional actor, how did you develop her performance?
Huang Ji: She tried to enrich the role based on her understanding. Because she found the film fascinating, she really wanted it to be good. Yet she needs to really digest the role. So we have to wait until she’s ready. For example, for a scene where we film her taking a bath, we had to stop and wait for her for three days. Every morning or afternoon we rehearsed before our filming. I’m so lucky that I have a great director of photography accompanying me. He always shares his idea of the camera angle and mise-en-scene. While he sets up the camera, I work with the actress. And because we mostly used natural lighting, we had to wait for the light to be right.
DGF: How did you develop the visual style of the movie, as well as the sound? How much was pre-conceived and how much was discovered during the production?
Huang Ji: In terms of the visuals, Otsuka is an expert at that. And he has such a rich emotional involvement in the material. We had some ideas pre-conceived, but not a lot in terms of the soundtrack. This is the first time I made a feature-length film. We discussed the framing of the film on set. We also spent around two months for sound mixing. We found a sound studio for it.
DGF: The story structure is very much a puzzle. We don’t know what happened, at least, until about midway. Even then an uninitiated viewer really has to be alert to the details to know what happened. Was this structure preconceived or did you decide on this afterwards at some point?
Huang Ji: Well, we decided on the puzzle structure while revising the story in the hotel. The story has an underlying mystery: who is the person that got her pregnant? And in what kind of way will she express it? We considered lots of possibilities. We tried to think of everything to deal with this situation. We tried to think what the girl, our actress, will do in this situation to solve the problem.
DGF: With your film’s premiere in Rotterdam, are you sensitive about how your film may be perceived by Western viewers, compared to Chinese viewers?
Huang Ji: The story happens to be set in China, but I hope this may provoke the audiences to consider if the same thing happened in their or other countries. This problem is so crucial. It may not only be a Chinese issue, but a problem that exists around the world.